Obama neglects historically Black colleges

Federal PLUS Loan reform could mean the end of historically Black colleges and universities. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, October 9, 2013 — Imagine if black colleges didn’t exist. What if the ability of black students to attend or complete four year institutions and pay for college suddenly just stopped?

That could soon be a reality for thousands of African-American undergraduates who attend historically Black colleges and univesities, or HBCUs. The law is about to create a sudden change in eligibility requirements for parents and students who apply for federal PLUS loans from the U.S. Department of Education.

Recently, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the United Negro College Fund, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and other HBCU advocates asked that President Obama and congressional leaders persuade the House and Senate to reconsider their position on PLUS loans reform, specifically focusing on the Higher Education Act. This legislation lays out direct guidelines for the distribution of student aid. Congress could choose to allow students loan eligibility despite past credit history. If Congress does nothing, then this legislation will have a drastic effect on black student applicants and the future economic sustainability of historically Black colleges.

Despite the federal government shutdown, HBCU advocates are calling for maximum Pell Grant incomes to be returned to $32,000 annually. The Education Department recently dropped the maximum income eligibility for Pell Grants to $28,000, making thousands of urban applicants ineligible. Furthermore, lawmakers are now being asked by black higher education groups to reduce interest rates on theses PLUS loans, which aren’t fixed and could impose a huge financial burden on recipients over a 10-year span, depending on the economy.

HBCU Representatives and special interest groups advocating on behalf of black academic institutions have expressed their dismay at the U.S. Department of Education’s sudden decision to change the criteria for PLUS loans, which puts Black institutions with already limited endowments at severe risk.

The Education Department later explained that PLUS loan reform was a necessary response to bringing standards in line with other types of expired federal-based loans.

President Obama has agreed to start a new appeal process early next year, as the change in standards has solicited heavy criticism from black supporters of the Obama Administration. Obama will permit the USDOE to implement a process to help parents previously denied a PLUS loan to appeal, recognizing that the negative publicity over these loans could be a huge blow to his administration. The United Negro College Fund and other like-minded groups still don’t believe that these changes are enough and consider the appeals process a minor solution in the face of the thousands of parents, students and families still being denied.

According to USDOE data, in 2013, PLUS loan approvals quickly dropped significantly — by 20 percent over the last five years — as a result of the recent changes. Preliminary results from another survey discovered that approximately 11,000 minority students at HBCUs, many in good academic standing, were forced to drop out and leave school for the 2013-2014 academic term as a direct result of these changes.

Already in predominantly black neighborhoods, the unemployment rate is between 16 and 17 percent, according the U.S. Department of Labor. The white unemployment rate, by comparison, is only seven percent. Black colleges and institutions tend to serve mostly low to mid-income families and students from economically disadvantaged groups, so black institutions have a major role in educating this population.

One would think that President Obama, who recently gave a speech at Morehouse College, one of the top historically Black colleges, would show more concern about protecting majority black institutions. Thousands of low income black students who are already enrolled in HBCUs will forced to drop out if no action is taken to reform the PLUS loan program. If they drop out, many will never return. Obama now has to decide whether to support reform of the Parent PLUS policy. If he does nothing, his inaction could destroy historically Black colleges for years to come.

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